GREEN BAY, Wis. — If multi-talented quarterbacks such as Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III are more than just a momentary, flash-in-the-pan success story, the Packers have a lot of work to do this offseason in order to be better prepared for it.
The Kaepernick-led San Francisco 49ers are representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLVII and won’t be disappearing from the playoff picture for a long time. It was apparent in the divisional round of the postseason that Green Bay simply does not have the scheme or the talent to battle with a good quarterback who is equally as productive running the ball as he is throwing it, especially when that team is well-rounded in other areas of its roster.
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Against the Packers, Kaepernick ran for an all-time quarterback record of 181 rushing yards. A week later, the Atlanta Falcons were so focused on Kaepernick that San Francisco running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James practically went untouched on three touchdown runs.
In just those two games alone, it’s been proven that there’s not an easy solution to stopping it. Quarterbacks like Kaepernick and the style of offense that can be run given their unique skill set is the newest, hottest thing going in the NFL. And it seems like it will be more than just a short-lived trend.
“I think that it’s something that’s here to stay in terms of what we’re going to see with these young and athletic quarterbacks because of what it does to you defensively,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said a day after losing to the 49ers. “A lot of that stuff you want to do rushing the passer, it calms you down a little bit because you’ve got to make sure you’re sound if, all of a sudden, the quarterback pulls the ball down and runs with it.
“I’ve always said that you’ve got to be careful how much you blitz and pressure because you get people at different levels of the defense – and that happened twice to us when we did blitz.”
There is a downside to having an offense designed around a quarterback who exposes himself to so many hits outside the pocket. The Washington Redskins found that out when Griffin’s season ended with injuries to his ACL and LCL. Only one year into what could be a tremendous career, Griffin’s second NFL season won’t begin until a lengthy rehabilitation is completed.
“I think the general consensus has been that there’s concern about getting your quarterback hit,” Capers said. “If you made a big investment in the quarterback and all of a sudden you’re exposing him to being hit. We didn’t get any great hits on Kaepernick but I think with a guy like RGIII, you see that, over the season, the number of hits that you take, you’re always concerned about that.”
But Griffin’s injury isn’t going to take away from the significant upside that having a dual-threat quarterback brings to a team.
With the Redskins and 49ers both on Green Bay’s schedule for the 2013 season, plus the likelihood that the Packers will be seeing both of those teams in the playoffs for years to come, adjustments have to be made.
“I think the more people see it, you’re going to see a defensive response,” Capers said.
But does Green Bay have the on-field personnel to effectively respond?
“You have to have enough speed that, if he scrambles, you have somebody that can go get him underneath at that position,” Capers said. “However you design it, if you’re going to have somebody spy or you’re going to try to have a more controlled rush to where you just don’t try to beat the guy and get up the field but you’re going to try to bull the guy back into the quarterback, so you fill all of those lanes.”
The Packers didn’t have a player who handled it very well in their divisional-round exit this season. Clay Matthews had a few stops and Ryan Pickett played fairly well in his snaps, but Kaepernick made the rest of Green Bay’s defense look unprepared and undermanned.
One offseason isn’t going to change the style of defense that the Packers play, especially if Capers returns for a fifth season in Green Bay. Regardless of who the coordinator is, there aren’t nearly as many physical players on the roster for the Packers to work with compared to what the 49ers have. That’s mostly by design, but at the moment, it’s a defense that’s not equipped to handle Kaepernick and San Francisco’s offense.
“We don’t ever try to stay the same,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re very open to doing things a better way.”
As Kaepernick continues to lead the 49ers and other quarterbacks have success with it, there will be more teams attempting to follow suit. As Capers noted, college football teams often use spread-option offenses, so there won’t be a shortage of quarterbacks who are capable of bringing that to the NFL.
“To me, football is a big cycle,” McCarthy said. “I was very fortunate as a young professional coach to learn that. I can remember Jimmy Raye, long-time coach in the NFL and played in the league, he told me, ‘just remember, this game is a big circle. Right now the Bears defense may be en vogue, then it will be the 3-4,’ and he talked about the history and how certain people, I think maybe Lou Holtz tried to take the option into the Jets, so I think it isn’t very often that you come up with something new. There are some new wrinkles.
“I think the pistol (offense) is definitely a new item that’s here to stay. Anytime someone has success with something, everyone else is going to look at it. But, to me, it’s still football. It’s the ability to stress, whether it’s your contain element, when you’re stressing the force elements or you’re trying to stress a three-technique running option football. Whether you’re running an option route in the passing game, whether you’re running the option in the run game, those are good schemes.
“When you have someone that has that experience versus a group that does not have as much experience against it, you’re in a threat of what happened to us (against the 49ers). It’s no excuse. I don’t feel good about the 579 yards (allowed); make no mistake about it. But that’s the type of things that happens, I don’t want to say yearly, but I think a lot of people will be looking at, and you may see more of it.”
Now comes the part where the Packers have to properly react to it. Between McCarthy, Capers and general manager Ted Thompson, Green Bay can’t simply hope that the same schemes and same personnel used this postseason can suddenly stop Kaepernick and other similar offenses around the league.
Just like other teams were more prepared for the Packers’ downfield passing attack in 2012 after Green Bay’s high-scoring 15-1 season in 2011, having more film to study on Kaepernick will make it easier to stop in the future. But changes also have to be made. Because, if everything stays relatively the same, the Packers won’t surpass the 49ers again in the conference for a long time.